January 9 — 4:04 pm, 2012

What is wrong with Devin?

A few days ago, one of my students, Devin, said something truly enlightening to me: “Mr. Hall, every time I get mad, you always teach me something new.” The comment showed me how far Devin has come.

Devin is an incredibly smart 4th-grade student who, unfortunately, has been given the title of extremely disruptive and emotionally disturbed. Almost a scarlet letter draped across his chest, this label pushed him from classroom to classroom, negative experience to negative experience, and reinforced the discomfort and mistrust he had toward the adults in his life.

This story is not a reflection of disappointment, but an example of how hard work with students can uncover and close substantial cognitive and emotional development gaps in a child’s life.

As I interacted with Devin, I continued to reflect on my own experiences as a 4th-grade student. As a child, I was cycled through discipline processes. As Pedro Noguera states in Schools, Prisons, and Social Implications of Punishment, Black males are often humiliated and excluded because teachers make the assumption that removing children from the learning environment will allow other students to learn in peace. Ultimately, the relationship I had with my mother and other teachers helped me to assess my priorities and focus on my studies. Up to this point in his schooling, Devin did not have the opportunity to connect with adult mentors to assist in his maturation and development.

When I joined the 4th grade staff at my school, Devin immediately caught my eye.

Without having any exposure to science, he grasped the concepts very quickly as shown through his work and verbal responses. Devin exuded a strong sense of confidence. This natural confidence also cultivated a defensive nature and need for Devin to continuously justify all of his actions. This manifested itself into a very combative environment for the entire classroom.

At times, Devin would feel the need to throw enormous temper tantrums and begin screaming when he did not get his way. It was clear that he was so used to this combative relationship with almost every adult figure and felt these actions were necessary when addressing adults. As Pianta mentions in Enhancing Relationship between Children and Teachers, “it is important to understand how relationships with teachers can intersect children’s developmental pathways…”

When the other teachers and I uncovered these needs, we went on a blitz of love, with the goal of providing Devin so much support he would have no choice but to trust at least one of us.

When he would get upset, we allowed for cool-down time to help Devin regain composure at his own pace (as long as it didn’t interrupt the learning process for other students). When Devin appeared to be engaged in work, we pulled him to the side for short check-ins and reasserted our availability when necessary. Eventually, we reached a moment of what Pianta called the "Window of Opportunity," which is a “period in which…influencing later outcomes is open and in which experiences will have disproportionate influences."

Later, Devin came to school one day visually distraught. An email went around from the staff informing us about Devin’s behavior and urged everyone not to issue extreme consequences, but to simply work with him and try to serve as support. Throughout the entire day, every teacher made playful banter with Devin, pulled him to the side for quick chats in and outside of class, and even altered lessons to influence his participation. By the end of the day, Devin was crying in the arms of his homeroom teacher; a solid relationship formed, and a catalyzed shift in behavior.

Educational and psychological theorists have all but proven the importance relationships have on the cognitive development of young children, both positively and negatively. For Devin, it took the collective awareness and tenacity of a few teachers to help him and hopefully, change the course of his life for years to come.

The next time you enter your classroom, identify those students who have been shaped by a lack of love, and begin to change their reality.

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